There is a limit to what you can do in The Gambia, and most days we enjoyed a gentle walk or relaxed around the pool. I discovered the joys of hotel hammocks, and once I'd mastered the art of getting into them, I tended to relax in them most afternoons. It was critical to put on sunscreen, as I spent a proportion of the afternoon "resting my eyes." It was great to relax in the hotel grounds. Less relaxing was the tendency of the local "bumsters," who operated on the beach or outside the hotel, waiting to befriend you at every opportunity. We made the mistake of responding a couple of times, and thereafter, they treated us like lost cousins – wealthy lost cousins who they felt owed them a penny or two. Some were less predatory as they had something to sell. For example, there was fruit lady, drinks man, peanuts woman, and tourist-guide man, who were prepared to earn their crust whereas "weren’t-you-here-last-year man" and others with similar qualities only wanted to befriend you to beg money. So beware the bumsters. They will be a real nuisance, especially if you don’t want to be rude to anyone whilst on holiday.
In fairness, those who had things to sell seemed eternally grateful if you bought from them. We had fresh fruit a couple of times and fruit lady referred to us as her special customers. We had a superb spread of various fruits for lunch – it had cost around fifty pence (English money), and there had been more than enough for both of us.
A further and final tip is… don’t buy your bottled water from the hotel. Outside our hotel, if you ran the gauntlet of the local taxi rank, the money-changers, and the cigarette men, we found a small cabin selling water at a quarter of the price of the same item sold in the hotel. The owners gave us the attention you would normally expect if you were spending a small fortune of a piece of jewellery.
Other than lazing at the poolside, we did make the journey to Banjul a couple of times. The first time we walked along the beach, enjoying the gentle breeze and the water at our feet. We were a bit thrown by two experiences on this walk. First, nature had been harshly at work. High tide had eroded into one of the local cemeteries, exposing the bones of someone’s dearly departed relative. No effort had been made to prevent this or indeed to put right the damage. Instead, the bones the lay exposed randomly and carelessly tossed to the side. A little further down the beach is where we saw life. A local was down at the water’s edge, attending to his ablutions. His attitude suggested that we were intruding in his bathroom, but he cared little - his soap and towel resting on a well used plastic bag. Life and death is really not as we know it.
Onto Banjul. The main streets can be easily accessed off the beach, and we headed for Arch 22. This was built to commemorate peaceful coup of 1994 and is one of the largest and most impressive buildings in Banjul, probably in the whole of The Gambia. Welcoming us to Banjul is the golden statue of a liberating soldier, and, on the other side of the arch, is Independence Drive, the main road into Banjul. The walkway is lined with small golden statues representing the different tribes that make up the Gambian Nation. It’s a large structure that is well worth a visit. You can walk up to the top, or, if you prefer, use the lift, and there you’ll find a small, but fascinating, museum looking at the history up to the coup while examining the tribal heritage of the country. The other opportunity is to take in the view - virtually a 360° view of Banjul and its surroundings. Here you can truly appreciate that Banjul is an island.
Walk right to the bottom of Independence Drive, and you will eventually arrive at Albert Market. On the day we came to Banjul, we needed to find a cash dispenser (be warned there are not many and they do seem to be hidden away), and I was a bit pre-occupied. As we sauntered down, a friendly Gambian appeared from nowhere. "Hi", he says, "How are you doing? I’m the pool boy at your hotel and you should have told me you were coming into Banjul." I’m convinced I’ve seen him before but my wife, clearly more cautious than me, whispers that we don’t know him. "Which hotel?" I ask. "The Atlantic" says he. "We’re not from there," I say. "Well," he says, "I also work just out of Banjul". "Palm Hotel?" I ask. "Yes," he answers. Suckered is me. Chuffed is he! As it happens, he was good company, but I reckon we were lucky. Next time out I’m ready – I know no one. If you take my advice you’ll be the same. Being too friendly in The Gambia generally means that they’re after your money.
Well, we do make it to Albert Market. It’s crammed with stalls for both the locals and the tourists, and you need to be fairly robust. Don’t be afraid to jostle your way through the crowds, and, whatever you do, be prepared to haggle - and haggle strongly. They seem to enjoy it, and you’ll end up thinking that you’ve got a good bargain. People always advise to halve the price and not to pay more than two thirds of the asking price. I’m meaner than that. I start at 25%, and I have never paid more than 50% - often less. If they don’t like your offer, they’ll tell you. Walk away – it’s amazing how often they’ll call you back and do the business. If you don’t want to trade, just enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of the authentic marketplace.
The King Fahad Mosque is a good walk away (we enjoy just strolling), but it’s worth the effort to gaze on the tall minarets and the splendour of its arches. Take in the bright fresh colours but remember, if you enter, remove your shoes, cover your legs and, if you are female, cover your head and shoulders. It’s important you respect the building and their religion.
Walking in Banjul is interesting, there’s a steady flow of non-tourist activity. Most will smile broadly at you while others will try and engage you in conversation. Learn from my experience – smile back but "walk on by" (as Dionne Warwick once sang). It’s also extremely important to carry water, or pop into one the many shops to get a fresh bottle. It is cheap and exploring the local shops can also be fun.
After a good look round Banjul, we walked the main road back to our hotel. It was a mass of activity: school children heading home, chatting on the side of the road; buses and cars belting down the road as fast as their engines would allow; and motor cycles trying to avoid the potholes. The dust storm created by all this activity was evident, and the resulting haze was a wonder to behold. I just wish I was carrying a mask!
But this is The Gambia and later we’ll all just smile and chill, enjoying the local food while recalling our day in and around Banjul.